Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Ellison “Tarzan” Brown was not favored to win the Boston Marathon in 1936. Multiple Boston champion Johnny Kelley was. Brown won. And three years later won again, breaking a world record.

Brown, whose Narragansett tribal nickname was Deerfoot, finished with a time of 2:28:51 on his second victory at Boston and represented the U.S. in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin alongside the great Jesse Owens.

“He ran like a bat out of hell,” The Boston Globe reported at the time about his second Boston Marathon win.

He became an instant hero to Native people across North America and inspired the name “Heartbreak Hill” to describe the most iconic — and dreaded — section of the Boston Marathon course.

But like other top Indigenous athletes of his era, he struggled greatly with discrimination and marginalization.

Now he and other historic Indigenous runners will be honored at the 125th Boston Marathon on Oct. 11, which unintentionally falls on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It was canceled last year due to the pandemic and rescheduled from it’s normal date in April because of resurging COVID-19 cases.

The Boston Athletic Association has since apologized and set out to honor Indigenous people in various ways.

Brown’s grandchildren Anna Brown-Jackson and Michael Monroe Sr. will accept a banner on behalf of their family.

“Running and winning the Boston Marathon was something grandpa loved. He had gained another family through the Boston Athletic Association that he always talked about, one that we today are also glad to be a part of,” Brown-Jackson said in an announcement.

Three-time runner up and a former American marathon record holder Patti Catalano Dillon, citizen of the Mi’kmaq tribe, will be the official starter of the Men’s and Women’s Open Races. In 1981, she set a then-American record of 2:27:51.

Onondaga Nation citizen Tom Longboat, 1907 champion, will also be honored.

“It's such an honor to be asked and I'm so humbled and excited to celebrate both aspects of my identity — as a Bostonian and an Indigenous person,” Catalano Dillon said. “The Boston Marathon and the Native community both made me who I am today, and I am delighted to have an opportunity to celebrate them.”

Other actions the association said they will do is working with federal and state recognized tribes on a land acknowledgement to recognize the marathon course travels through Indigenous land, which is the city of Newton, Massachusetts.

Additionally, the association will donate $20,000 to fund Newton’s first ever Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.The state of Massachusetts, however, does not officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The Boston Athletic Association will furthermore donate $10,000 to WINGS of America, an organization that promotes building Native communities and youth by using running initiatives. They have a partnership with the association and Harvard University called the Boston Marathon “Pursuit” Program where they send five high school students to the event. This year Dustin Martin, executive director of the WINGS of America, will be recognized over the race weekend event.

Painter and muralist Yatika Starr Fields, who is running in support of WINGS of America, will be creating a piece over the weekend at the marathon’s Fan Fest in honor of past and future Indigenous runners of the Boston Marathon. 

Present Day Native runners

The association said they will also recognize current Indigenous athletes over the race weekend and on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The approximate distance is 26.2 miles.

25-year-old Erin Tapahe, Diné, told Boston.com that she plans on doing an honorary jingle dress dance for the runners and those who were affected by COVID-19. She will represent and has since raised about $10,300 for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

“Running is a tie to my ancestors and running has always been there for me. It pushes me and helps me be aware of my body, mind, and spirit,” she said.

She said she learned about “power of running as a way of prayer and healing” when she did her kináadla, a Navajo woman coming-of-age ceremony where you run three times a day for four days. 

25-year-old Erin Tapahe, Diné, in her running shoes and traditional Navajo attire.(Photo courtesy of Eugene Tapahe)

Kyle Sumatzkuku, 25, from the Hopi tribe from the village of Mishongnovi in Second Mesa, Arizona, and Moencopi, Arizona, said he’s been waiting to run in the marathon for two years.

When the pandemic hit and his community was dealing with its effects, he had to slow down his training. At the same time he was working as a food distributor with his friend on the frontlines.

“The community just all united. It kind of opened my eyes knowing that it does take a village to raise a defiant, powerful, it sounds cliche, like a warrior or even a runner, going out and starting his journey and representing all Native Americans,” he said.

And running on Indigenous Peoples’ Day will be a unique experience.

“I’m excited to see other fellow Natives that will be running,” Sumatzkuku said. “For me it’s personally something really powerful and defiant. It shows resiliency, it shows that drive knowing that it’s a special day and we’re all coming into unity.”

He listed many Indigenous runners who’ve inspired him like Ellison Brown and Hopi Olympian runner Louis Tewanima. Now, some people have told him they’re inspired to run in the Boston Marathon because of him.

“I try to pour so much gratitude and humbleness, making sure that they’re on the right path,” he said.

Since he’s arrived in Boston, he’s getting as much rest as possible and continuing to train. He expects it will be “10 times more nerve racking,” but plans to stay connected spiritually and in prayer.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report

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